By Donna Pfendler-Merkle

Heeling House began as an idea between three friends at an International Therapy Dog Conference in Denver, CO three years ago. They had a vision to take animal assisted interactions to the next level.

The collaborative approach allows Heeling House staff and volunteers to work together at the Center, as well as with teachers and therapists to help children to quickly reach their therapeutic/IEP goals in a friendly, non-judgmental environment.

Undeniable Bond
The natural bond between children and animals is undeniable. Heeling House takes the power of that human-animal bond and incorporates it in therapeutic sessions. The animals are utilized in the therapeutic sessions and classes in a variety of ways. Donna Pfendler-Merkle, a co-founder, has been working in animal assisted therapy for over 10 years. She currently works with her Portuguese Water Dog Tybee. “I have witnessed how animal assisted therapy has evolved. More and more studies are showing the benefits of adding a therapy dog to the therapeutic and learning process, and I see this in my work at Heeling House. The dogs are very attuned to the clients’ needs; I have learned to sometimes just let the interactions organically happen. Those are the most rewarding times—when you can watch this dog that you trained from a puppy go into a situation and know exactly what to do.” Sometimes the animals can serve as a motivator and a reward for a job well done. Once the child finishes a task, they can walk, play, or just cuddle with the animal. The animals will sometimes serve as a model for good behavior: demonstrating sitting quietly, listening, good manners, completing tasks, etc. The animals are often used to facilitate improvements in fine and gross motor skills by having the children engage in games and activities with the dogs. They can also be used as an intermediate step for those children learning how to appropriately interact with their peers, and can help children with sensory processing challenges. “Tybee participates in several social skills classes modeling appropriate behavior. I have seen him be a great motivator for our clients with cerebral palsy. The children enjoy practicing their own walking while walking the dog. Tybee can be a great motivator and confidence builder.”

Applied Behavior Analysis
The Heeling House Center is taking Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to a whole new level through a unique program that integrates therapy animals into the ABA sessions. Based on ABA principles, they also offer a unique type of Social Skills Group that incorporates therapy animals. “Tybee has been working with a child who was extremely afraid of dogs. She was not able to be in the same room without becoming very nervous and visibly showing signs of stress. The child and I worked on basic dog commands, building her confidence in situations with a dog. We started Tybee on the opposite side of the room, and as she saw how calm he was and that she had control of the situation, we were able to get him closer to her and build on additional commands. We then played games together like rolling a ball back and forth and Go Fish (yes, Tybee likes to play Go Fish!). As of today, the child is walking with, petting and even giving treats to Tybee!”

In addition, Heeling House Center will offer a “Read With Me” Literacy Program where students read to an animal, plus a “Paws for STEM” afterschool program where “science is going to the dogs!” A certified therapy dog team from Heeling House will join the students in this very unique STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program. Together, the therapy dog and child explore the world in fun and playful ways that foster the development of collaborative teamwork. Heeling House also offers a 2500-square-foot training facility for a variety of courses to meet your dog’s training needs, from puppy obedience to advanced animal assisted therapy classes.

This year the group is excited to offer several summer camps at the center. The Junior Dog Trainer Camp is a unique chance for children to work hands-on with a professional dog trainer and spend the week training shelter dogs in basic obedience, which will help them have a successful journey to their new home. The All Animals Camp explores the world of animals. Children learn about the habits and biology of the therapy animals including ponies, rabbits, turtles, and of course dogs. A Book a Day Camp introduces young campers to how fun reading a story can be; each day will feature a different book. After reading the book, campers will spend the day exploring the story through dramatic play, games, movies, and art projects. The STEM summer camp will explore the world in fun and playful ways that foster the development of collaborative teamwork.

A Growing Team
With 16 handler/dog teams, Heeling House has almost doubled in size and in its ability to help the DMV area. “It is important to us that as we grow we stay connected to the community,” says Benner. “In addition to our variety of programs at the center, we continue to support our local schools and libraries. Our volunteer Paws for READ dog program at the local libraries continue to be very popular. Volunteer dog teams go to various libraries in Loudoun County on the last Sunday of every month, and children read to the dogs. This past week we participated in ‘stress less week’ supporting Mental Health Awareness Week at Marshall High School in Leesburg, VA. The kids love these outreach programs.”

Last year, Heeling House provided over 400 hours of animal assisted therapy for children in need. They have assisted over 700 children with tasks such as improving speech, motor function, executive planning, and social skills, as well as math, reading, and writing skills. ND

Heeling House, Inc. is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization whose mission is to improve the lives of children with special needs through the use of Animal Assisted Interactions (AAI) and Animal Assisted Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). HHI has been providing AAI for children with special needs in local schools and therapeutic centers in the Northern Virginia area since 2013. For more information, go to about Heeling House and its programs go to and follow their adventures on Facebook or Twitter.